Tuesday, December 29, 2015

The Mad Historian's Athenaeum, Vol. 1, No. 26

Nash, Gary B., Charlotte Crabtree, and Ross E. Dunn. History on Trial: Culture Wars and the Teaching of the Past. New York: Alfred A. Knopf, 1997. xiv + 320 ppg.

            The culture wars of history are fascinating. Unfortunately, they are still with us. How we interpret the past will always be a matter of contention as the juxtaposition between memory and reality collide. Unfortunately, the way American politics work conflicts with the actual intelligent development of national standards and all levels of education. The culture wars of history go back many years, but the battle in the 90s was particularly nasty just like it is today. The sad thing is that the culture wars appear to be completely political in nature with little factual basis to them. 

            Gary Nash and Charlotte Crabtree (she passed away in 2006) were the lead developers overseeing the creation of the National History Standards in the late 1980s and 1990s. Funded by a grant from the National Endowment for the Humanities (NEH), an organization then led by Lynne Cheney, wife of future vice president Richard Cheney, they and others developed a solid set of standards for use in K-12. By the time the standards were ready for release, Lynne Cheney had left the NEH and entered the political arena as a conservative Republican. As a result, Cheney would attack the standards, Nash, Crabtree, the historians and educator working on the project and anyone or anything involved with it via mass media. 

            Nash and Crabtree show in this book how the standards were created, why they were created, and who was involved in them. They also show how Lynne Cheney supported the work up until she left for politics. In the process, Nash and Crabtree thoroughly debunk the smear campaign waged by conservative media. In fact, they expose the entire affair as nothing more than a political maneuver by conservatives jockeying for votes by playing on the fears of Americans.  The process of creating the standards was begun by Republicans who wanted a set of national history standards. There were no problems until Cheney entered politics and used the work to further her own image and standing on the national stage. 

            This book does a wonderful job in exposing the hypocrisy of the entire assault by Cheney and her clique including conservative media who were desperate for anything to present to their audiences in order to generate ratings. The talking points of those assaults are examined and easily rebutted in the book. Most of the time, it is painfully obvious that the people slamming the standards had not read them and were instead relying on someone else’s opinions. 
            Unfortunately, the same people are bringing up the same issues today. That makes this book particularly relevant. The arguments are the same, but this time involves Common Core or the new AP History course. Reading this book can help intelligent people rebut the distortions generated by those who wish to perpetuate the myth of American Exceptionalism. It is worth noting that all of the academic historical organizations in the US reject the conservative talking points. Why is it that people with degrees in history and careers spanning decades involving meticulous research into the many aspects of American History are derided and ridiculed by a group of people who often lack a college degree, or of the few that do have one, none of them are in history? 

That alone should indicate what is really going on in this discussion. Also, note how many of the detractors are either politicians or media figures that use the discussions to generate ratings. Once you examine the standards and the issues, it is painfully obvious that Nash, Crabtree, and Dunn are correct and that this book exposes the conservative attacks as nothing more than political rhetoric. With that in mind this book gets four stars. I reserve five stars for truly great books and four for very good books.


  1. What is AP history? I may have missed something.
    It is not well-known, but FDR contacted Wendell Wilkie shortly before the 1944 election. Roosevelt wanted to form a Liberal political party. with Wilkie, a Liberal Republican. What a great idea. But Wilkie had a heart attack, and Roosevelt's health started to fail. He died in 1945. The idea didn't take off then. Maybe it's not too late. Just a thought.

  2. Advanced Placement US History. It is a course offered in some high schools that upon the successful completion of gives college credit. The instructors are usually college instructors working as adjuncts or high school teachers with MAs in History.

    Recently, AP History was under attack for changing the way the course was tested as well as the content. The real reason had far more to do with dollar signs than anything else, but the right wing seized the opportunity to attack something they didn't understand.

    You can read more on it here: http://amoregeneraldiffusionofknowledge.blogspot.com/2015/07/tilting-at-windmills-vol-1-no-10.html